Understanding the 4 Stages of Urbanisation

Embracing its Fluidity

Over the past few decades, ASEAN has undergone a significant transformation, evolving from an agriculture-based economy to an industry-based one, and now moving towards a service-based economy. This shift is closely linked with ASEAN’s urbanisation, which is advancing in parallel with its economic growth. Urban development can be divided into four different stages: Urbanisation, Sub-urbanisation, Counter-urbanisation, Re-urbanisation. Each stage represents an important phase in the evolution of cities, although not all cities progress through all four stages. In fact, some cities have remained in the first stage for over 50 years, showing no signs of sub-urbanisation.   


Stage 1 – Population moves into urban settlements


Stage 2 – Urban sprawl starts to happen as city boundaries grow outwards and spread into its surrounding hinterland


Stage 3 – Population moves out of the urban area into commuter towns or rural areas


Stage 4 –Regeneration/ Redevelopment of urban area that brings people back into them

4 Stages of Urbanisation with reference to Van den Berg et al.’s spatial-cycle model (SCM) (1982)

A city’s position on this dynamic urbanisation curve is not predetermined. Rather, it is contingent on various push and pull factors which affect the development, liveability, and sustainability of its urban areas. In ASEAN, such factors include population density, economic opportunities, infrastructure development, and environmental considerations. Curious to see where ASEAN’s key metropolises lie on the curve today?  


If a city core’s infrastructure cannot support the demands of its growing urban population, urban sprawl is likely to occur. This is where development extends outward into surrounding villages and towns, forming larger urban agglomerations. Rapid and unplanned growth can strain city resources, potentially leading to counter-urbanisation trends. 

Is Vietnam on the brink of sub-urbanisation?

Vietnam is undergoing one of the most rapid urban transitions worldwide. Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang boast the highest urbanisation levels in the country at 87% and 79% respectively, while Hanoi strives to reach 60-62% by 2025. 

Unlike many countries that focus exclusively on mega-cities, Vietnam has pursued a polycentric urban development strategy since 1998. This approach aims to distribute economic growth across multiple urban centres rather than concentrating it solely in the capital city. 

Recent surveys and national censuses highlight Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as primary destinations for internal migration, followed closely by emerging metropolis Da Nang. Reasons for migration include family reunification (41%), better job prospects (22%), and improved environmental conditions (17%). This influx underscores the attractiveness of these cities and reflects the government’s success in promoting balanced urban development. 

Vietnam prioritises the development of medium and small-sized cities while controlling the expansion of mega-cities, thereby mitigating counter-urbanisation trends. The nation’s commitment to polycentric urbanisation not only addresses economic disparities but also enhances the overall liveability of its urban centres. This balanced approach stands as a model for sustainable urban growth in rapidly developing nations

Vietnam Population Density

Sub-urbanisation: The evolving urban form of Greater Manila

In the early 2000s, Manila was on the cusp of sub-urbanisation, marked by a steady increase in population density at distances greater than 18 kilometres from the city centre. At present, Manila has predominantly transitioned into a suburban city, with its core jurisdiction housing barely 5.4% of the city’s population, with nearly 95% of the population residing in the suburbs. This migration is largely driven by housing residents to the outskirts of the city. According to the Philippine Statistic Authority, 59% of Manila’s population are considered migrants, mainly from within the country, seeking better economic prospects in regions such as the National Capital Region (NCR), Cavite-Lagun-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon Region (CALABARZON), and Central Luzon. Despite this internal migration trend, the net migration rate in the Philippines remains negative – indicating a strong economic pull factor for locals moving abroad.   

Socioeconomic inequality remains significantly pronounced in the Philippines, with the top 1% of earners accounting for 17% of the national income, while the bottom 50% earn just 14%. This disparity has shaped Manila into a dual city where slum settlements coexist the rich and poor reside side by side – illustrated by the juxtaposition of slum settlements with gated urban developments and industrial zones.  

In Manila, there is a notable rise of new growth spots on the outskirts, with new areas of development emerging. This illustrates Manila’s complex urban environment, influenced by economic differences and migration patterns, shaping it into a city with varied spaces and socioeconomic realities.  

Counter-urbanisation: a growing phenomenon in Malaysia

The intention of seeking a better way of life has led many hopeful individuals across Malaysia to relocate to Kuala Lumpur (KL), the nation’s primary economic hub. However, as the urban population in the city continues to swell, the city’s resources are reaching their limits and are no longer able to meet the increasing demands of its urban population. This triggers a phenomenon where populations begin to move away from the city centre towards the suburbs, or even back to their rural counterparts, illustrating the case for counter-urbanisation in KL.  

While residing in the city presents more opportunities, it also brings additional financial burdens such as high rent, living costs, and daily traffic congestion. As urban demands continue to rise, these drawbacks gradually outweigh the benefits of urban living, prompting individuals to contemplate leaving at the earliest opportunity. 

Is sub-urbanisation and counter-urbanisation a bad thing?

In short, no! Sub-urbanisation can stimulate increased urban demand in the secondary cities surrounding the core, thereby creating more growth opportunities. Counter-urbanisation may bring benefits such as manageable population density and reduced environmental pollution as people relocate away from congested urban centres. However, its overall impact hinges on the proactive measures that city governments take to manage these urbanisation trends. Urban leaders must adopt a forward-looking and solutions-oriented approach. 


The ebb and flow of cities through the four stages of urbanisation highlights the cyclical and fluid nature of urban development. In ASEAN, this evolution is intricately tied to economic growth and is influenced by a multitude of factors such as population density, economic opportunities, infrastructure development, and environmental considerations. Therefore, a city’s position on the urbanisation curve is not set in stone; it serves more as a diagnostic guideline than an inescapable fate. Examples like Vietnam’s polycentric strategy and Manila’s suburban expansion illustrate the diverse trajectories cities can take. Proactive and adaptive governance becomes essential in harnessing the benefits of urbanisation while mitigating its adverse effects. Sub-urbanisation can foster economic vitality in peripheral areas, and counter-urbanisation can alleviate urban congestion and environmental strain. However, the overall impact of these trends hinges on the foresight and responsiveness of urban leaders. If we want to see ASEAN thrive and serve as a model for sustainable urban development globally, we must embrace the fluid nature of urbanisation and prioritise balanced, inclusive growth. 

Read more about MI’s urbanisation research here.   

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